The start of the school year always gets me thinking about my old school days and many of my teachers. I was going to write about some of the teachers who made a difference in my life, but there would be too many to list in this space, and I didn’t want to leave anyone out.

So instead, I thought about the common characteristics among those teachers. What was it that each of them had that enabled them to make a difference in my life and the lives of many of my fellow students.

First, they all really loved children.  I don’t recall any of my teachers ever saying they loved me, but I felt it.  To use one of today’s common phrases, their classrooms were a “safe space” where their affinity for the students was unconditional.

My best teachers were passionate about their subject matter. Their excitement about a particular book, a time in history or even a tricky math word problem was contagious. It was much easier to be interested in learning when the teacher was enthusiastic about the material.

They were tough.  Everyone liked the easy teachers, but it was the tough ones who challenged us to do our best.  They were not mean—we all had a few of those—but they expected us to try our best and, in doing so, we often achieved more than we thought we were capable of.

My great teachers were always willing to help… they wanted you to come to them if you were struggling with a concept or perhaps even having a personal problem. The best among them were not just teachers, they were life mentors.

They were funny.  I think great teachers have to have a healthy sense of humor to survive the daily rigors of the classroom.  Sometimes ridiculous things happened in class and our teachers were able laugh along with us.

My best teachers saw their students as individuals, recognizing their strengths and weaknesses. Twenty five kids meant twenty five different personalities and abilities. Somehow my good teachers could recognize all those differences and teach accordingly.

The most influential teachers opened my eyes.  The late educator and philosopher Allan Bloom said, “Education is the movement from darkness to light.”  Years later, I can still recall some of the seminal moments when, through a teacher’s efforts and my labors, I began to understand the world in a different, more enlightened way.

Public education has many challenges and there are legitimate criticisms of how well we teach our children.  We will debate those another day, but at the start of the school year it is also important to remember that, ultimately, the most important factor in a child’s education is the teacher.

Candidly, I cannot say I miss school, but I do miss many of those teachers and I’m thankful for having had them.

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